Naomi Klein in Toronto

Last night I saw Naomi Klein speak to a packed house at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto. She captured a lot of what I’ve been feeling these days and managed to explain to me why I have been unable to write anything for the past two weeks. I’ve felt there was so much going on that all I could do was some kind of roundup of all the things that would treat them all superficially, or delve into one or two and not mention some huge things that were going on, neither of which appealed to me. Not that silence in these times is better. But Naomi helped me solve my problem with a strategy of her own: try to explain the situation and get help with what to do from people you respect.

It was strange, she said, to be on a platform speaking to a room full of people trying to analyze events that seem to be going too quickly to make sense of. But she proceeded to do as good a job, it seems to me, as anyone could, of offering something that could help people make sense of things.

I would summarize her talk as follows. She started from the basic premise of her book, the Shock Doctrine: that elites use the shock of natural disasters or military violence to impose economic policies that redistribute wealth from the people to the wealthy. She also used a quote from Friedman from the book, that the key was what ideas were “lying around” when a crisis hits. Friedman and the Chicago School and their counterparts around the world ensured that their privization/deregulation/monetarism were lying everywhere, and also helped to motivate and justify the violence that imposed the ideas.

What did that have to do with this moment? Several things. First, the financial collapse of the US banks and mortgage institutions were a direct outcome of these ideas. Second, that the solution to such a crash, the last time there was one of such magnitude (and with similar causes, in the 1920s), was the entry of the government into the economy in a massive way – the regulation, nationalization, taxation, and public investment of the New Deal in the US. At that time, though, there was more grassroots organizing locally (though, like the organizations that exist today, those were demonized and made invisible as much as possible at the time and in historical accounts) and there was more international rivalry (from the Soviet Union and 3rd world nationalism). Today US elites see themselves as victors enjoying the spoils of the world and, like a neglectful partner in a romantic relationship, see no ideological or institutional competition to give them an incentive to behave better.

And yet, Naomi said, this was ours (progressives’) moment to lose. We ought not to defeat ourselves by believing their propaganda about us, that our project failed because our ideas failed. That is not true. And they are proving it for us – by socializing the debt that the banks incurred, they are showing what progressives know and always have said – that government always plays the major role, the only question is whether that role will be on behalf of the wealthy or whether there will be some component of looking after the public. We should not be deceived by their arguments of inevitability, especially now that they have demonstrated their incompetence and their inability to handle the situation. Nor should we be deceived by their declarations of our weakness. We, she concluded, are much stronger than we think.

There were more details, including some very interesting ones, but that was the basic argument she presented. What followed was almost as good as the talk itself though, as Naomi switched from being a speaker to being a host for some of the best activist organizations in the city to talk about a huge number of things that are happening now. It is going to take a lot of people to try to make sense of these times, and the structure of the event was consistent with that message. The activists that spoke were also excellent and at their best. People always ask me what to do, Naomi said, so I am going to get some help answering that question.

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty talked about an ongoing campaign for public housing in Toronto. Public housing used to be one way to house people affordably. The alternative, Naomi pointed out, was the open ended speculative mortgage bonanza that culminated in first the foreclosure crisis last year and the collapse of banks this year. Any US crisis will eventually be a Canadian crisis, since Canada’s elites have made the country so dependent on the US. And any US economic doctrines become Canadian doctrines – at least the elite ones. In Toronto the City’s strategy is to become the biggest slumlord in the city, refusing to do the necessary repairs and keeping the people in the public housing system in squalor, so that the argument can eventually be made that the buildings should be condemned and replaced with condos, privatized. OCAP is part of a campaign to fight this through witholding rent and pooling it for repairs themselves. It is a simple and brilliant strategy that will work if enough people take it up. Another fight is against the invisibilization of homeless people on the streets – once invisible, they lose any protection from the state’s depredations. There’s a street takeover on Saturday October 4th. If you’re in Toronto, be there. This was a moment of extraordinary opportunities and dangers, but the biggest mistake would be to accept the inevitability of capitalism.

More fighting words came from the Tyendinaga support committee, who gave us the latest on Shawn Brant’s case and on a successful fight against a $2 million police station in a community that doesn’t have drinkable water.

Two speakers from No One is Illegal talked the fight against deportations, the exploitation of insecure labor, and the ongoing theft of land and resources from indigenous people, the deeper elements of the whole system. They both talked about what solidarity means – fighting along with the oppressed.

Someone from the Stop the War Coalition pointed out that in all the talk of present and future fiscal crisis that is going to preclude needed investment in social and environmental areas, no one is questioning the need for trillions (in the US) and hundreds of billions (in Canada) of dollars to go to the military. Also, that if Canadian mobilization helped stop Canada’s elites from joining the war in Iraq, it could do the same to end Canada’s participation in the occupation of Afghanistan (and future wars).

The Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid talked about how the Palestinians are the experimental subjects for innovation of the Shock Doctrine – surveillance, control, torture, imprisonment, destruction of the basis of survival. CAIA argued for the campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against the Israeli regime and Canada’s support for it, until Israel complies with international law.

Discussion then turned to the Canadian election that will take place on October 14. An activist from a very clever website, pointed out that on October 14, Canadians would have their choice of 4 parties with progressive environmental policies and one dinosaur (the Tories). The Tories do not have a majority of the public by any means but they could win a majority because of our electoral system. Unless voters subvert the electoral system by voting strategically (which is NOT the same as voting liberal!). The site gives riding-by-riding information on who the favourites are and who the best candidate to defeat the tories is in each riding. It is non-partisan, other than being anti-Tory, which agrees very well with my position on this election. Please take a look at their site and pass it along. Canadians are some of the most wired people in the world per capita, which means a campaign like this could work. (Another motivation to oust the Tories, related to the high per-capita internet use of Canadians, is the Tories’ appalling digital copyright bills, the subject of some very interesting campaigning: see Russell McCormand’s blog, for a place to start). Activists from a new group called the Department of Culture also announced their campaign and upcoming events (that will be appealing since they’re artists) to try to stop the Harper people.

The whole event was really special for two reasons. One, because it tried to respond to a great deal of what was going on very seriously and sincerely, and managed to present so many campaigns and ideas and still seem politically coherent (at least to me). Two, because the relationship between the activist groups and event organizers and the speaker was just the right one: one of dialogue and mutual support.

The best line of the night was when she was talking about the job of progressives being to move the center. Let the liberals in power make the compromises – movements should push them. And in times like these, the more pushing, the better the eventual compromise. If, for example, they said the green economy couldn’t be afforded after socializing the public debt, then the way forward is clearly to nationalize the oil companies as well as the banks, since oil companies were still very profitable. In short, Naomi advised, ‘get out there and say some crazy stuff’.

I agree.

PS: This is not an unbiased article, nearly all the groups and people I mentioned are friends, groups I belong to, people I admire, etc.

PPS: I am going to try to write something about the economic crisis in the coming days. People have been asking and I have been researching…

Bolivia’s elites seek a media coup

Bolivia’s popular movements are attempting to use democracy and a legitimate government to advance an agenda of sovereignty, greater equality, and development. Their opponents, led by several governors of the wealthier provinces in a part of the country called the “media luna”, are trying to use violence and sabotage to stop that agenda by provoking a civil war and chaos. The challenge to Bolivia’s government and its president Evo Morales is to stop the violence without allowing the provocation to succeed. In meeting that challenge, Morales has the support of most of the Latin American governments. His opponents have the support of the United States government.

Both sides are using tested models. Bolivia’s path has similarities with that of Venezuela. After long debates about whether the electoral path to change was the right one, an electoral strategy was mapped out with some of the social movements supportive, others skeptical. Having won elections, the new government faced difficulties because much of the state apparatus, including regional governments, remained in the hands of the old elite and status quo, while the economy remained controlled by foreign powers and local elites. Trying to re-structure the government while keeping the country running, dealing with foreign interference, and then use legislation and a constitutional process to attempt deeper reforms, is a major challenge. But the government’s attempts at reform were strengthened and propelled by popular support and, more importantly, popular organization. Meanwhile the fact that Washington’s attention was focused on the Middle East provided some breathing space.

The opposition is also using tested models. In Venezuela in 2002 and in Haiti in 2004, US-backed elite movements developed methods for enacting a coup against an elected regime. Western media would support the elite and present a distorted picture of the elected government and its leader as a “strongman” or “dictator”. These media reports could be translated and re-broadcast locally to present a popular government as if it were internationally isolated. The US Embassy and other personnel could contribute to both the media campaign and to the financial, political, and military organization of the opposition. In the final stages, military or paramilitary forces would be necessary. They would create some spectacular instances of violence: perhaps by attacking unarmed opposition protestors whose deaths could be blamed on the government; alternatively, they could attack government supporters who confront the opposition in counter-demonstrations.

The latter might lead to armed action by government supporters in self-defense or in reprisal, or to repression by military forces still loyal to the government. In either case, further pretexts are provided for the government’s claimed perfidy and violence, which could then lead to calls from the US that the government step down in a predictable press conference at the US Embassy.

At this point in Bolivia, the international media campaign against the government is on in full force, the US has helped to organize the opposition, and since September 10 the requisite massacres have been produced, by the opposition itself, its victims the government’s supporters. If the regional governments support the Bolivian government and the armed forces remain loyal, as they are likely to, the Bolivian government will survive this crisis. But lives have been lost senselessly in this attempt to stop Bolivians from claiming their rights.

Although the path to the current crisis has been longer than a few weeks (for some background see our previous “Bolivia on the Brink”, ZNet March/08), the trigger for the current violence was the announcement on August 28, 2008 by Evo Morales of a date for a referendum on the new constitution. It is to be held on December 7, 2008, and it will mean a re-founding of the country: land reform, nationalization of natural resources, and institutional changes that will make it much more difficult for the elite to block popular measures.

The elite´s main strategic goal is to avoid the constitutional referendum by pressuring the government to postpone the constitutional referendum. This would cost Evo his popular support and destroy any capacity or momentum for popular reform. The Morales government is extremely popular, and the elite knows it. Their strategy has been, rather than to claim that they are representative of the country as a whole, that they are seeking autonomy for their own regions, which are controlled through old networks of patronage (and, more recently, violence as well). In May 2008 they held their own autonomy plebiscites, organized by the five provincial governments under their control, with no international oversight and no legal basis. Morales’s government dismissed these as illegitimate and when a recall referendum was held on August 16, 2008 (this time with international observers and a legal basis), Morales won with 67% of the vote.

Two weeks later on August 28, Morales issued a presidential decree setting the December 7 date for the constitutional referendum. On September 2, the electoral court announced its opposition to the referendum on technical grounds (the court claimed the referendum couldn’t be announced by decree but had to be passed by Congress, including by the opposition-controlled Senate). The opposition governors of the five provinces demanded the referendum be called off. Opposition demonstrators began to block roads. They seized an airport in Cobija on September 5 and blocked the highway between Santa Cruz (an elite stronghold) and the capital, La Paz, followed by roads linking Bolivia to Brazil. They attempted to take over government offices and clashed with Bolivian armed forces – who had been ordered, and followed orders, to not respond to provocation.

In the first week, these opposition protests failed. They generated neither the desired reprisals nor hoped-for of popular support against the government, though they had caused economic damage. Opposition leaders, like wealthy governor Ruben Costas who met with US ambassador Philip Goldberg, must have been concerned about their lack of success. So in the second week of protests, the opposition escalated and moved down the path of sabotage and murder. The road blocks had resulted in energy shortages in the opposition-controlled areas, but the seizure of a gas plant in Villamontes on September 8 and an attack on a pipeline to Brazil on September 10 made problems worse. On September 11, “clashes” in Cobija, Pando, killed about 11 people. The government began to use tear gas and pellets against protestors. Morales called for continued restraint, but warned that “patience has limits”.

On September 12, a paramilitary attack on a pro-government demonstration, just outside Cobija, killed 30 people, in what Bolivian government officials called a massacre. One of the survivors, Antonio Moreno, told the Associated Press that the peasant demonstrators were unarmed. Armed men fired on them from trucks with machine guns. Moreno’s account: “They insulted us, they shot at us, they were armed, others had sticks. We retreated 800 meters but someone said we had to face them. There was a fight, we disarmed some of them but we couldn’t take their weapons away.” The government blamed the governor of Pando, opposition leader Leopoldo Fernandez, for the violence and claimed paramilitary assassins hired by the opposition pulled the triggers. The opposition replied by claiming the peasants attacked first.

The victims of these killings were popular and indigenous movements and organizations, supporters of the government, in the opposition-controlled areas. These organizations helped bring out the popular vote for Evo in the recall referendum and have been targeted for revenge by the elite. Among the attacks in Pando province were the land reform institute, human rights NGOs supporting peasants, and the local indigenous confederation. Among the victims of the Pando massacre was Bernadino Racua, a well-known indigenous leader.

On September 13 and 14 Evo’s government declared a state of emergency in Pando. It used the military to take back the airport and the government offices that had been taken by the opposition. Orders for the arrest of Fernandez and others were issued. Patience had reached its limits, both with opposition violence and with US interference: the US ambassador was declared persona non grata and told to leave, denying the Embassy the chance to hold the usual press conference demanding negotiations, concessions, or a resignation. Chavez followed by expelling the US ambassador to Venezuela, claiming another coup plot against him had been exposed, and Honduras refused to credential their incoming US Ambassador.

The US responded in kind, expelling the Venezuelan and Bolivian ambassadors, threatening “grave consequences”, and announcing sanctions against Venezuelan ministers on the usual drug war grounds (dispelling these drug war accusations requires another article and can’t be done here). Economic and political consequences will run in both directions if the economic relationships between the US and Latin America are harmed. Evo had just visited the Middle East, including Iran, contrary to US attempts at diplomatically isolating that country, and Venezuela just announced joint military exercises with Russia in November. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa announced concerns of separatist movements in the Bolivian mold taking action in Ecuador’s Guayaquil province.

Within Bolivia Evo has acted to try to deny the opposition a strategic victory and prevent the conflict from derailing the popular agenda. On September 9, in the middle of the crisis, he shuffled out some of the ministers he’d been forced to accept out of compromise with the elite and replaced them with people who were ready to move popular economic policies. He opened a dialogue with the opposition but insisted that the referendum would go forward on December 7. The opposition offered to lift the roadblocks on September 14. The government approved this step but said it was completely inadequate to restore order. After orchestrating the deaths of dozens of people, the opposition ought not to be allowed to simply order a temporary tactical retreat. They have the right to due process in criminal prosecutions. They do not, after orchestrating murder and massacre, have the right to demand concessions from a legitimate government.

Latin American leaders, including those of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and others, are meeting on September 15 to seek a resolution to Bolivia’s conflict. Virtually all, including even US ally Colombia, have announced support for Morales’s government and its popular mandate, and that they will refuse to accept separatism.

The movements that brought Evo to power will not go quietly, as the opposition should know. Without the capacity for a national coup, the opposition lacks the popular support to even sow “ungovernability” in their own provinces for very long. Their desperate need is to use the media to amplify their limited actions as larger than they are, to generate external political pressure to force Evo to make concessions and defeat the popular movement for them. As a result, the success of Bolivia’s popular processes depends in part on whether the false stories about the government, the past few weeks, and the days to come, are believed.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. His blog is

Correo canadiense interviews me on Hector Mondragon

Canada’s spanish language newspaper Correo Canadiense published an interview with me on Hector Mondragon a couple of days ago. It was conducted in Spanish and it is published in Spanish but I wanted to include it here for completeness, as things can disappear on the web sometimes… so I am including it in its entirety below, as well as the link. It was a faithful interview. The journalist, Elizabeth Meneses, was quite thorough in her questions and the answers are very close to what I remember saying (and thinking). Given the nature of the topic and the importance of precision, this is very much to her and Correo Canadiense’s credit.

In any case Hector has written his own words, and they will appear here and elsewhere as soon as we can get them in english.


“Los movimientos sociales no somos terroristas”, Justin Podur

En Colombia investigan conexión Canadá con las FARC


Posted: 2008-09-05

Main Photo
El ex jefe guerrillero Raúl Reyes. EFE

El escritor y activista de Pueblos en Camino en Canadá, Justin Podur conoce a Héctor Mondragón, el hombre que la semana pasada apareció en un informe del periódico El Tiempo, como alguien conocido del ex líder guerrillero colombiano Raúl Reyes.

“Héctor es una de las voces mas creíbles y sólidas que piden por el cambio y una salida negociada del conflicto en Colombia. El es una persona que tiene un perfil hecho en Canadá y en Europa”, dice Podur en entrevista con CORREO Canadiense.

Podur sale en defensa de Mondragón, después que el reporte de la publicación colombiana le involucrara con Liliana Obando Villota, alias ‘Sara’, quien fue capturada el pasado 8 de agosto y acusada de recaudar fondos a nivel internacional para la organización terrorista FARC.

La detención de ‘Sara’ se hizo posible a labores de rastreo entre Canadá y Colombia.
Según agentes de inteligencia citados por el diario colombiano, ‘Sara’ tendría sobre sus hombres la responsabilidad de coordinar las células de esa agrupación en Canadá.
“Y en un correo del 2 de abril del 2006, ‘Reyes’ le escribe a un hombre identificado como Héctor Mondragón: “Quiero presentarle a la camarada Liliana (….) ella trabaja conmigo y al mismo tiempo presta accesoria a Fensuagro (Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria) en su trabajo de relaciones internacionales. Naturalmente se trata de una camarada de absoluta confianza”, cita El Tiempo, sobre el texto de uno
de los correos enviados por Reyes, quien fuera dado de baja en un operativo del ejército colombiano el pasado mes de marzo.

“No creo en esta historia del portátil de Raúl Reyes porque hay un informe de Interpol que dice que después de 48 horas que tuvieron el laptop, hubo cambios a miles de archivos. No podemos tener confianza en eso”, dice Podur, quien cree que se trata de un montaje.

Héctor niega vínculos
En un correo electrónico enviado a sus amigos mas cercanos, Héctor niega cualquier vínculo con el grupo guerrillero Farc.
“Hoy se lanza contra mi algo que nunca existió”, dijo Héctor en el email que también llego a Podur.

“Conozco a Héctor personalmente y políticamente. Personalmente él nos ha dicho que el supuesto correo de Reyes nunca existió. Es su palabra y yo creo en él”.
Agrega Podur que “políticamente, él es un pacifista, el ejemplo de alguien que practica la no violencia y la lucha del cambio social a un costo personal increíble; se trata de una persona que esta viviendo en la clandestinidad y ha perdido mucho de su vida familiar”, asegura Podur.

En su descripción acerca de Mondragón, Podur menciona que Héctor ha sido un activista desde su época universitaria, que ha ensenado cursos en universidades estadounidenses y que fue galardonado con una beca por su trabajo en derechos populares por parte de Human Rights Watch.

Economista de profesión, Héctor Mondragón habría estado en Canadá en el año 2000, a través de un evento organizado por el grupo Solidaridad Colombia.
“Yo no lo conocí en esa oportunidad sino un año después cuando fui con Acción permanente por la paz, con un grupo de pacifistas que tuvimos la oportunidad de reunirnos con él y Héctor nos dio su análisis de la coyuntura política colombiana como economista y líder de los movimientos indígenas”, dice.

Justin Podur y Héctor Mondragón mantienen contacto vía email y la ultima vez que se vieron fue en el 2004, cuando el escritor canadiense estuvo en el departamento del Cauca, Colombia.
Para Justin, Mondragón es un objetivo del gobierno colombiano porque éste “ha tomado acciones contra movimientos populares y sociales y Héctor es un ejemplo de esto y por eso es un objetivo”.

–Usted que conoce a Héctor, puede decirnos ¿cual es la posición de él frente a las Farc?
El está muy cerca de los movimientos indígenas del norte del Cauca y estos grupos reclaman autonomía frente a todos los actores armados, eso significa un no al estado, los grupos paramilitares y a las Farc. Puede que esa guerrilla haya tenido o todavía tenga ideales pero ellos no están de acuerdo con las estrategias y violaciones de derechos humanos que las Farc ha hecho.

–¿Conoció o escuchó de Liliana Obando Villota, o Sara?
-Nunca he escuchado de ella ni por reputación su nombre, sólo cuando lo leí en el artículo de El Tiempo. No conozco a todos los que estaban trabajando con solidaridad.
Todos los movimientos armados tienen conexiones internacionales, pero también los movimientos pacíficos y sociales que nunca levantaron armas y que están opuestos a los paramilitares tienen conexiones y no necesariamente son miembros o grupos que apoyan a las Farc. Ellos no quieren estar en un lado o el otro. Y este montaje que están haciendo va en contra de todos los procesos sociales.

— Para usted, ¿quien es Héctor Mondragón?
El es mi héroe en el sentido de que si yo pudiera ser como él, sería un honor. Me gustaría tener su claridad analítica, moral y valor en todos los sentidos.

Heal and Renew

by Badri Raina
first published in the Mainstream Weekly, September 3, 2008

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark;
O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right.

In an act of conspicuous courage (some might say ‘audacity’) the young, bright, and fiercely upright Omar Abdullah has breached the pall of silence in which the Valley has remained suffocated since the coerced exodus of the Pandits in 1990.

In a statement recorded on his blog, Omar has made the following candid aversions that interrogate Kashmiri Muslims as a whole:

Continue reading “Heal and Renew”